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Farewell to a Met

The back of Baseball America [1] may as well be the bulletin board for the baseball family. Here are the records of the signings, of the trades, of the releases and the placements on the voluntary retired list. Names you may know one day, making their first appearance in agate type. Names you half-remember, drifting by in various minor-league transactions. Names you used to know, recorded for the last time. I always take a look, to nod my head at the doings of current Mets, to wonder at potential future Mets, and to remember Mets past.

Last week’s Baseball America brought something unexpected, though — an obit.

Tom Belcher, a righthander who spent three years in the minors and had a short stint with the Mets, died May 11 in Chandler, Okla. He was 65.

Who?

I am, by default, the keeper of what’s known as The Holy Books: two binders featuring a card for every man who’s ever worn blue and orange for a major-league game. At last count, there were 790 of them, from initial pick in the 1961 Expansion Draft Hobie Landrith to catcher-with-additional-portfolio Eli Marrero. There’s a decent chance the Mets will crack 800 this year. Perhaps Mike Pelfrey will be the magic number. Or maybe Michael Tucker.

Tom Belcher isn’t in The Holy Books.

The Holy Books are the official story, but they’re not the whole story. There are guys who have a kind of phantom Mets existence, who aren’t in THB but cast a shadow nevertheless. Jerry Moses, who spent a ridiculously large percentage of 1975 on the active roster but never got into a game. Mac Suzuki and Justin Speier, who donned blue and orange in 1999 and 2001, respectively, going so far as to warm up in the bullpen before moving on. Anderson Garcia, who came up just a couple of weeks back and went down without escaping the dugout. He’ll be back — or maybe he won’t. Poor Terrel Hansen was called up for a couple of days in mid-1993 and then sent back down; he played minor-league ball for another decade, but retired without making the Show. Next time you watch Field of Dreams, remember that Terrel Hansen would give his eyeteeth to be Moonlight Graham.

There are guys who didn’t crack the regular season: Charlie Hayes, Terry Puhl and Jim Leyritz, among others, logged extensive time in spring training without becoming Mets. Joe Randa was Met property for a brief time during an offseason before changing hands in a delayed three-way trade, kind of like a guy who spent two hours between planes in Detroit and now debates whether or not he can claim to have been to Michigan. Then there’s Lee Walls, the 22nd expansion-draft Met, who was traded before there were real Mets.

I’ve heard of Mac Suzuki and Terrel Hansen and Lee Walls and (God help me) Jim Leyritz. But I’ve never heard of Tom Belcher. Who was he? Was he really a Met, the 791st ready to claim his place in history?

Baseball America offers some clues in its obit: “In 1962, Belcher played for the Syracuse Chiefs (International League) before ascending to the Mets on Oct. 15, 1962. He remained there until April 8, 1963.”

The Mets’ final 1962 game (Loss #120, to the Cincinnati Reds) was on Sept. 30, 1962 — a little over two weeks before Belcher’s ascension. The Mets’ first game in 1963 was April 9, 1963 (Loss #1, to the St. Louis Cardinals), a day after Belcher was taken off the roster. So he was probably the final cut of spring training — the 26th man. In ’63 he had a good year for Raleigh, in the Carolina League, then another good campaign in 1964, for the Williamsport Grays. That was his last year in pro ball; he never pitched in the major leagues.

Tom Belcher died on May 11, the night Aaron Rowand dueled the center-field fence to a draw and the Phils claimed a rain-shortened victory. Google him and you’ll find a flurry of obits, most of which make much of his Mets service:

Tom was with the Mets for a short time in 1963…

Funeral services were held in Chandler Tuesday for the former New York Mets player, Tom Belcher…

Basin City’s Major Leaguers: Rapid City Chiefs: Tom Belcher (Mets)…

Here’s Tom Belcher’s memorial page [2], from a pair of Oklahoma funeral homes. The picture, you’ll note, is Belcher in his Mets uniform, a spring-training shot of a 22- or 23-year-old full of big-league dreams. Belcher never got to wear that uniform in a situation that would get him a line in the Baseball Encyclopedia or a card pocket in The Holy Books. What did he do instead? He owned the Chandler Baseball Camp, teaching kids to play ball. And his guestbook offers plenty of remembrances from boys who played ball there and learned there and now offer their condolences to his daughters, Leslie and Amy.

No, Tom Belcher never got a spot in The Holy Books: The count stays at 790. But he dedicated his life to baseball, taught it to countless kids, and when he died he was remembered in his Mets uniform. There are players in The Holy Books who did a lot less despite the formality of stepping between the white lines wearing our colors. Being a baseball player clearly meant the world to Tom Belcher. So, apparently, did being a New York Met. If the pitiless record shows not all the t’s were quite crossed nor the i’s dotted in attaining that status, well, who are we to gainsay him?

Farewell, then, to Tom Belcher. Father. Grandfather. Baseball player. Teacher. Met.